Europe

Hoge Kempen National Park; a long overdue visit to Connecterra and Mechelse Heide

March 2021. Almost an entire year since the first lockdown and corona is still a prominent part of our daily lives. With the entire Belgian vaccination campaign not running as smoothly as promised, it looks like we’ll be in this situation for quite a bit longer…

But I’ve managed to flip the switch. Instead of focusing what I cannot do, I’ll focus on what I can; discover as much of my own country as possible. It may be tiny, but I find myself amazed at what it has to offer. So here’s another chapter of my Belgian explorations; the Hoge Kempen National Park in Limburg.

While The Ardennes is the first place that comes to mind when you think of nature in Belgium, the only National Park in Belgium cannot be found there. It’s in the province of Limburg, in Flanders, near the borders with The Netherlands and Germany. The National Park Hoge Kempen offers almost 6000 hectares of pine forests and heathland, on which in the summer beautiful purple flowers bloom. Because of the gravel en sand extraction, ponds and high peaks were created, leading to amazing views.

For quite a few years, one particular part of the park has been on my to-do list; Connecterra. This was the main reason for my driving across the country to visit this park. But Connecterra, which since end of January 2021 has been renamed Terhills, is only one of the six entrance gates of Hoge Kempen National Park. I only had one day to discover the park, so unfortunately choices had to be made. One simply can’t walk all 220 kilometers of trails through the park in such a limited time.

Of course Terhills was my first choice, but I decided to keep that part for the afternoon. Save the best for last, as they say! The other entrance gate I walked through was the Mechelse Heide. This part consists mostly of heathland and is characterized by the gravel and sand pits.

Seven loop trails are available to take you through the most beautiful parts of this area. We didn’t follow just one loop, but made our own loop around the ponds and through the pine forest leading to the heathland. And I loved e-ve-ry step I took. We hiked around six kilometers, at a leisurely pace, just enjoying the scenery. I didn’t really know beforehand what I could expect of this area, but I was in awe of my surroundings. When we entered the park, around 10am – which is the official opening hour -, it was still pretty foggy, but in no time the fog cleared and we were offered a bright blue sky to accompany the lovely views. Aaah, bliss!

And then, after a quick picnic-style lunch, it was time for what I had been looking forward to for quite some time; Terhills! What’s so special about this place is that less than three decades ago, this site housed a still-working coal mine. So basically you’re hiking along the mining ponds and mining-stone hills. When entering the park, you’re also greeted by the two mine-shafts of the Eisden coal mine. You can climb the 12-metre high tower for a view, but unfortunately the towers were closed the day we were visiting. Bummer!

On the other side of the entrance, you can also spot 13 glass domes. This is the Ecotron of Hassel University, an infrastructure in which different ecosystems and climate scenarios are being imitated. The turrets cannot be visited, but you can of course go and take a closer look from the outside. It’s a unique project in Europe and amazing for climatic and biodiversity research.

But back to hiking! Because of the construction of a big resort on site, of which I’m not really a fan, the hiking trails are partially interrupted. Thankfully they have provided an alternative; the purple hiking trail. This trail connects the best parts of the trail in the park, so that made it really easy for us to choose our hike for the afternoon. It’s 13 kilometers long, taking you to the top of Long Slag Heap (‘Lange Terril’), along the water to the Twin Slap Heap (‘Tweeling Terril’) and back.

The part up to the top of the slag heaps will leave you out of breath, but the view from the top is de-fi-ni-tely worth it. The picture on top of this post is the view from the top of the Lange Terril, the iconic view of Connecterra. I must say that it felt a bit surreal to finally see this view with my own eyes after having admired it in pictures so many times before. I never thought I’d have that experience on Belgian soil. The panorama from the Tweeling Terril (or the boobies, as my dad proudly called them) isn’t as well-known but it also doesn’t disappoint. On the contrary!

While the panoramas are definitely my favourite part, always have been, the vistas along the water are also worth mentioning. I was afraid that the way back following the same path along the water would be too much of the same, but nothing is less true. It managed to grip my attention every step of the way. You’d be surprised how different the same trail can look going one way or the other! So don’t let that scare you into shortening your hike.

And with that I conclude my experience in the Hoge Kempen National Park. I still feel a bit guilty about not visiting this park sooner. I’ll shamefully even admit that until about two years ago I didn’t even know Belgium had a national park to begin with. I know, horrible! But I’m determined to return as soon as possible. There is still loads of terrain in the park that I had to leave unexplored and that doesn’t sit well.

For more information, you can always check the National Park website or visit the Visitor Center at the entrance of Terhills. Do take into account that because of COVID-19, this center is still closed for now. You can however still pick up the newsletter with the hiking map at the entrance. Oh, and it’s free entrance. Also pretty damn nice to know, right?

โ™ก Ellen

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